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New scientific review reinforces importance of animal protein in a healthy diet

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

In late December, the Foundation for Meat and Poultry Research and Education released a scientific review detailing the role of products like bacon, deli meats, sausage and cured meat in a healthy diet. 

“Health professionals are bombarded with information about meat and poultry from a variety of sources, and this paper provide a strong scientific summary of meat’s role in the diet,” said Janet Riley, Foundation senior vice president of public affairs. “We hope it will be a valuable resource for those tasked with addressing consumer questions about meat and poultry.”

The article, titled, “Should We All be Eating Less Meat?: Exploring the Science and Controversies Surrounding Meat,” was authored by Kathleen Zelman, a master’s of public health (MPH) and registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). 

Less meat

In the paper, Zelman asserts smart portions of lean meat fit well into a heart-healthy diet, but many consumers are confused by what they hear in the media and online.

“‘Eat less meat’ has become a mantra of the popular media and many health experts,” Zelman wrote. “Yet, an estimated 95 percent of Americans make meat or poultry a regular part of their balanced diet. Many consumers want to enjoy meat but are confused by scary headlines and debates over the relationship of meat consumption and health.”

Citing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Recommendations, Zelman also noted a maximum of 26 ounce-equivalents of protein foods from animal sources per week is recommended, and protein can come from animal and plant sources.

Additionally, she noted nutrient-rich meat can help meet dietary guidelines recommendations to “focus on variety, nutrient density and amount” to meet nutrient needs within calorie limits. 

“Meat is the principal source of protein in many diets,” Zelman said. “It is nutrient-rich, containing high biological-value protein and essential nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin E, selenium, iron, zinc, phosphorus, choline and more.” 

She further noted the cholesterol, fats and saturated fat in beef are roughly 50 percent heart-healthy, mono-unsaturated fatty acids, and one-third of the saturated fat is stearic acid, which has been shown to have neutral effects on cholesterol levels.

Too much?

USDA studies, when compared to the dietary guidelines, show that most Americans are not overeating protein food from meat, poultry and eggs, except teen boys and adult men, who tend to consumer more of those foods. 

“USDA estimates that 17 percent of calories in a typical diet come from meat, poultry and fish,” Zelman said. “American men on average eat 4.81 ounces of meat and poultry per day, and women eat 3.07 ounces, according to USDA’s What We Eat in America.”

Additionally, Zelman asserted animal protein plays a vital role in helping Americans meet their nutritional needs, adding, “Vegetarians, vegans and anyone who removes animal protein from their diets is at risk for potential nutritional deficiencies. Recent evidence suggests limiting red meat may result in unintended consequences.” 

For example, common nutrient deficiencies that may result from limiting or eliminating animal protean include vitamin B12 deficits.

“A 2016 analysis of 40 studies found that B12 deficiency among pregnant vegetarians ranged from 17 to 39 percent and were ranged from zero to 86.5 percent in adults and elderly,” Zelman said. “In infancy, deficiencies of vitamin B12 and folate can have serious negative consequences on the developing brain.”

Adult vegetarians also are at risk for depleted iron stores and iron deficiency. 

Those people who do opt for a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle can meet their dietary needs, but Zelman said careful dietary management is essential and consultation with dietary professionals is often helpful.

Role of health professionals

At the end of the day, Zelman emphasized dietary professionals play an important role in helping Americans balance their diet, and a one-size-fits-all strategy cannot be used for nutrition. 

“Nutrition is so complex and needs to always be individualized. We don’t consume foods as single foods that are either good or bad. Instead, we need to focus on dietary patterns that are individualized,” added Texas A&M Department of Animal Science and Meat Science Professor Kerri Gehring. 

When looking at dietary guidelines, Zelman said health professionals should look to balance scientific evidence, health benefits and health risks to provide public health messages that can be customized to individuals.

“Bottom line, lean meats in controlled portions consumed with limits for sodium, saturated fats and total calories can be a part of a healthy eating pattern,” Zelman emphasized. “Overall, healthy dietary patterns, including a wide variety of food in the context of a healthy lifestyle are more important to good health and the best dietary advice.”

Saige Albert, managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, compiled this article from Zelman’s “Should We All be Eating Less Meat?: Exploring the Science and Controversies Surrounding Meat.” Send comments on this article to

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